By Sharryl Spence, youth tobacco control advocate, Jamaica Cancer Society
From birth, I have had the esteemed privilege of being raised in Jamaica, a small Caribbean nation with a strong global presence. Each year, millions of tourists from around the world flock to the home of reggae icon Bob Marley and sprint legend Usain Bolt to revel in the warm climate, visit the spectacular white sandy beaches, rock to our vibrant music or to partake in our sumptuous cuisine. However the pervading fallacy, “Jamaica? No problem man!” has unfortunately masked the unrelenting struggles faced by locals, in particular the chronic abuse of tobacco-related products by our youths. The reality is 1 in every 23 in-school adolescents smoke (Jamaica’s National Council on Drug Abuse, Global Youth Tobacco Survey 2010) as a result of unrestricted access to the products which are carelessly sold to minors.
In the very same year of the survey, the Jamaican Cancer Society collaborated with Ms. Kathryn Stewart, who served as my sixth form (equivalent to a grades 11-12 cf. American high school) supervisor at my alma mater, Campion College. Under her guidance, a committee of five students and I staged the inaugural local version of the American Kick Butts Day, a day reserved for youth advocacy against tobacco smoking using creative props and activities to inform the public about the dangers associated with the habit.
The event was a remarkable success. Three anti-smoking petitions addressing the need for laws: (i) prohibiting smoking in communal areas (ii) increasing the circulation of graphic warnings and (iii) enforcing protective tobacco control measures – were drafted with each having over 400 signatures. Owing to the work we had done as well as the strides made by stalwarts in the fight, the Minister of Health, Dr. Fenton Ferguson, announced the ban on smoking in public places in Jamaica on July 15, 2013, a date forever etched in my mind.
Even though I am currently attending the region’s premier tertiary institution, The University of the West Indies, the ardour to be a part of the movement for change is perpetual. Subsequently, I unreservedly accepted an invitation from the Jamaica Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society to be a speaker at the NCD Child 2014 Conference.
In March, I made the journey along with other delegates from my country to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where I addressed and sought to inform multinational health organizations about the triumphs and mounting challenges we face as young individuals living in the developing world, which is the principal target of tobacco companies desiring to replace consumers dying from the habit. I returned home more enriched and empowered after listening to noteworthy speeches delivered by the different speakers. Additionally, the conference permitted me to forge friendships with the multiplicity of individuals who, like me, seek to revolutionize the approach taken to eliminate noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
Despite the highlights of progress being made, it was quite sobering to learn that the incidence of NCDs is projected to rise drastically over time. Despite the commendable work done, the onus now falls on us to be our brother’s keeper and to articulate on behalf of persons whose voices have been muted. I am not daunted by the work ahead. Instead, I now search for innovative ways to disseminate the facts which are often repressed by executives of tobacco companies.
I encourage you to get proactive and join us in the fight against tobacco and other causes of NCDs! Alone we can do so little but together we can do so much. Please get involved, be a part of the change you wish to see in the world around you. Your voice counts!